With a new web-based mobile phone, Mozilla is out-Googling Google

Android isn’t web-based, but maybe it doesn’t need to be
Android isn’t web-based, but maybe it doesn’t need to be
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
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Here’s a paradox: Google is so devoted to the web that it has built an entire computer operating system—Chrome OS—based on the web, and it is so devoted to mobile phones that it built a mobile OS—Android—that is now the most popular in the world. And yet, it won’t be the first company to build a web-based OS for a mobile phone. That distinction goes to the Mozilla Foundation, non-profit custodian of the Firefox browser, whose web-based Mozilla OS for smartphones has just been released on a line of phones available in Spain.

A (radical?) new kind of app

Does the world really need yet another mobile OS? Well, to understand what’s special about Mozilla’s, it helps to understand that all other “modern” operating systems for mobile phones—including Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, Microsoft’s Windows 8, Samsung/Intel’s Tizen, and Jolla’s Sailfish OS—download and run apps that are, with very rare exceptions, distinct from the web. That is, they are not written in the same language as web pages are. Mozilla’s OS, by contrast, consists entirely of apps written in the languages of the web—HTML5, Javascript, and CSS, plus a little bit of Firefox OS-only code that indicates that an app is a “web app” of the sort the phone can download and run.

This is important because the biggest obstacle to any new mobile operating system becoming a serious player is that the incumbents already have hundreds of thousands of apps and tens of thousands of programmers who know the languages they’re written in. Writing ”apps” for Mozilla OS-based phones, however, should be easy for anyone who already writes pages for the web. Thus, even if Mozilla OS has a tiny market share now, the phone could potentially gain a sizable library of apps.

In addition, because these are web apps, users of Mozilla OS won’t be locked into the Mozilla platform—they could just as easily access their apps through the web browser of any other smartphone. That cuts two ways: It would make it easier for users of Mozilla OS in future to abandon it for another kind of phone, but now, when the OS has essentially zero users, the idea that there’s no risk in trying it out could appeal to some people.

Copying Google’s Chrome OS strategy

Mozilla’s approach is, not incidentally, a mobile-phone version of exactly the strategy behind Google’s Chrome OS. Chrome OS competes with Windows and Mac OS X, but runs only web-based apps. That way it doesn’t need to rely on software companies building new word-processing, spreadsheet, photo-processing and all the myriad other kinds of software people use on their computers; web versions of all these things exist already.

So why is Google building a web-based desktop OS but not a web-based mobile OS? For one, a web-based mobile OS is still quite experimental, and it’s not clear Google could have competed with Apple as well as it has if it had opted for one in the first place. Second, a web-based mobile OS is a pretty radical idea, and it could simply be the case that Google just didn’t have enough foresight to pursue one back when it was developing the (then still radical) concept of an open-source mobile OS, Android.

But there’s one more reason Google might not be pursuing a web-based mobile OS of its own: It doesn’t need to, because Mozilla OS already helps Google in two ways. First, Google is already the default search engine on Mozilla’s Firefox web browser; in fact, as of 2010, the most recent year for which numbers are available, Mozilla earned 84% of its revenue from this arrangement, which in 2011 was extended for at least three more years.

Second, Google also makes a lot of the web apps Mozilla OS users are likely to use, such as Google Drive, its cloud storage, or Google Docs, its office software suite. And Google doesn’t make money on software or devices, anyway; its driving business logic has always been to get people to use Google products as much as possible, wherever they are available—whether via an app, the web, or a web app. As far as Google is concerned, Mozilla OS is as close to being a mobile version of Chrome OS as makes no difference.